A scandal over elephant-hunting that forced Spanish King Juan Carlos to make his first ever public apology has turned the popular monarchy itself into an endangered breed, experts say.
Spain’s Juan Carlos, 74, who has long been widely respected for leading his people to democracy after decades of dictatorship and foiling an armed coup attempt in 1981, is also popular for his down-to-earth manner.
However, several troublesome months for the monarchy, topped by Juan Carlos’ apology on Wednesday for going on an expensive hunting trip to Botswana while his country suffers from a recession, have tarnished the king’s aura.
“He had to say something. The monarchy is probably in its darkest hour since the death of general Franco” in 1975, when Juan Carlos acceded to the throne, said Angel Bahamonde, a historian at Madrid’s Carlos III University.
The hunting trip came to light because the king broke his hip in Botswana and was rushed home for surgery, but — remarkably for Spain — sympathy for his medical condition was overshadowed by indignation at his perceived excess.
The sight of Juan Carlos on crutches solemnly saying “I am very sorry” raised doubts not only about the king, but his heir Prince Felipe and the whole structure of Spain’s constitutional monarch.
“He had to say sorry and try to win back sympathy from a large part of Spanish society, or the monarchy risked being in serious danger this time,” wrote journalist Jose Antonio Zarzalejos in El Confidencial newspaper.
“It was not just a matter of rescuing the monarchy from a state of public criticism that was hard to reverse, but to avoid com-promising the future of Felipe and the whole institution for that -matter,” he added.
Leaving hospital, the king said: “I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
“The king did the right thing, because it was worrying that public opinion saw his behavior as so frivolous. That with 5 million people unemployed, he went hunting elephants,” law professor Antonio Torres del Moral said.
Spaniards’ widespread respect for Juan Carlos, he warned, does not equate to an unquestioning support for the crown.
“In Spain, people are more ‘Juan-Carlist’ than monarchist, because the king has prestige and authority for being the driver of the political transition from -general Francisco Franco’s dictatorship to democracy,” said Torres, a monarchy expert.
Sociologist Fermin Bouza said the royal family now urgently needed to improve its image, which had already suffered from a corruption scandal implicating the king’s son-in-law, Duke of Palma Inaki Urdangarin, which broke in November last year.
That case prompted the royal palace to publish its accounts for the first time, in a gesture of openness that media widely interpreted as being driven by Felipe, keen to earn legitimacy with an eye to the succession.
“He will not have an easy time at all being king,” Bouza said. “This is a republican country that only accepts the monarchy when it comes in the form of someone like Juan Carlos was.”
However, the king’s role in the transition and the authority it won him, seem far distant now in the eyes of Spain’s younger generation, born under democracy, Bahamonde said.
“Republican thinking is growing and is considered a perfectly logical alternative,” he added.
“Felipe probably will reign,” Bahamonde said. “But the monarchist versus republican debate is open. It will get more intense in the future.”